Defend your personal space–even at the beach!


I have to admit that I’m a private person. Though I enjoy and welcome the opportunity to interact personally with so many people, I also like to seek out some quiet and a bit of solitude when the day is finished.

What started this line of thinking was an email I received from a former classmate. I would place our relationship somewhere between friend and acquaintance. She wrote that she was coming to the Delaware shore, and that she wanted to ‘catch up’ over dinner. Up to this point, everything was fine. But as I read further, I got the distinct impression that she assumed that she would be staying at my house—purely platonic and innocent, mind you, but ‘staying’ nonetheless. She went on to imply, in a rather transparent, open-ended manner, how she hated hotels, and how she was a bit short on funds. My regular readers don’t have to guess my reaction to her little guilt trip—I’m not only immune to that stuff, but I find it very annoying. When I first moved here, friends who already lived at the beach warned me about this very thing.

Why do some people automatically assume that your home, just because it is near an ocean, also doubles as a beach house/bed & breakfast? Of course there will always be special friends whom I will gladly welcome into my home. But I want to be the one to make the determination of who will share my personal space and who will not.

Just what is personal space? If you’re not sure, just walk up to a stranger in the grocery store and stand about 12 inches away—nose to nose. Their reaction (which will depend on many things, including their sex and occupation) is an unmistakable expression of their personal space. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall, author of The Hidden Dimension, pioneered the theory of ‘proxemics’: The study of ‘set measurable distances between people as they interact.’ He went on to define personal space as ‘the region surrounding each person, or that area which a person considers his domain or territory.’

Dr. Hall formed the concept of ‘personal reaction bubbles.’ These diagrams predict how one will behave based on how close he or she is to another person. Twelve to twenty-five feet from you is defined as your ‘public space.’ Four feet to twelve feet is your ‘social space.’ Eighteen inches to four feet from you is your closely guarded ‘personal space.’ Any closer than eighteen inches is strictly reserved for those with whom you are intimate. He proposes that one’s personal space can extend to ‘the space an individual considers theirs to live in,’ like, for example, their house or apartment. Bingo! No wonder I deleted her email! (Well, not really, but I felt like it.)

Don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that you shouldn’t invite overnight guests into your home. It can be fun and rewarding to accommodate somebody whom you like and respect. I consider it one of the definitive expressions of friendship and trust. But it all boils down to one key point: Did you invite them, or did they invite themselves? I will not feel the least bit obligated to clean up after my acquaintance just because she chooses to travel with no money. If I cave to the unearned guilt, I will be angry with myself and resent her even more. Then we both will have a bad time. If our friendship had actually been at a level where she could feel comfortable imposing on me, then I would have happily invited her in the first place.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about being ‘true to yourself’ when deciding what changes you want (or need) to make in your life. It is equally vital to your psychological health to extend that notion to your personal space. Your first obligation is to yourself. Only you can choose who will be the recipient of your hospitality and generosity. As I said before, the delight and gratification of sharing your space and possessions with somebody you value (and who would do the same for you) cannot be overestimated. But the whole thing can quickly turn sour when a ‘friend’ implies that you ‘should’ do this because of circumstances of their own making, or they simply expect it because your Zip Code happens to include the Atlantic Ocean. In order for us to genuinely and honestly accommodate another person, we must first accommodate ourselves.

To that end, I keep a list of local hotels, motels and guesthouses on my computer. I add to it and subtract from it as people give me feedback about their experiences. When a person (for whom I am not inclined to play innkeeper) informs me of their intention to visit, I execute a polite yet preemptive strike by immediately emailing them the file. I assure them that many of the places are near my home, and that we will have such fun getting together for dinner or whatever. My message is unmistakably clear, no feelings are hurt and we both have a great time. They don’t end up being the object of my annoyance, and I don’t have to scrub their bathroom and clean their sheets. It’s a win-win.